Latino Experience as depicted through “West Side Story”

Above features the video “America” from West Side Story. Behind the distinctive Spanish rhythm and instrumentation Leonard Bernstein used,  there are depictions of the Puerto Ricans’ experiences in their home country versus America. When the musical debuted on Broadway in 1957, it highlighted tensions between the Puerto Rican migrants and “whites” of New York. The song, “America” serves as a testament of an interpretation and stereotypes of the Latino migrant experience.

Puerto Rican migrants arrive in New York, 1954. Library of Congress.

Migrants from Puerto Rico to New York exploded during the nineteenth century. In 1945, there were about 13,000 living in New York. That number reached a million by the 1960’s.1 One reason many migrated to New York was because they could make double the pay for the same work than what they were making in Puerto Rico, which was grappling with a depression.2 Meanwhile, New York Newspapers in the 1940’s and 50’s flashed daily headlines that emphasized the “whiteness” and good backgrounds of the victims, while painting the Hispanic assailants as unprovoked in their  horrible actions. This tension between the Puerto Rican migrants that were seen as taking over the city and their conflict and strain with other minorities in the city became the perfect canvas for the musical.

The lyrics in “America” contrast between the Hispanic girls and guys (in the 1961 version and video above). The females are optimistic, hopeful in there lyrics “I’ll get a terrace apartment”, “Industry boom in America” and “free to be anything you choose.” On the male side, their response is less bright with responses like “Better get rid of your accent,” “12 in a room in America,” and “Free to wait tables and shine shoes.”3 The contrasting feelings about being in America represent disunity in their experience, just as the musical overall represents disunity and plots the Italians against the Puerto Ricans.

While the musical may be artificial in representing the Puerto Rican experience in New York in some ways, the violence between gangs and different ethic groups is accurate. In the musical, a fight ensues between the two gangs, mostly over pride that ends deadly for both sides. One New York Times article published in 1955 has a headline “Hoodlum, 17, seized as Slayer of Boy, 15.”4 As one can imagine, the article depicts the victim as “well mannered” and a “good student.” The “hoodlum” on the other hand, Frank Santana, shot him “seemingly unprovoked.” The gang violence in this article is similar to the musical, but the “culprit” does not get to just walk away and evade the police.

If Bernstein’s main goal was to create an authentic example of the Puerto Rican experience in “West Side Story,” there are certainly better ways it could have been achieved. He does however underline the optimism some migrants had for the new country and leaving their past behind. The reckless and problematic violence in the musical between gangs is also emulated, but is lacking in the targeted blaming migrants had to face that is evident in the plethora of articles published at the time. Overall, while  West Side Story borders artificial is representing the Puerto Ricans, it is worth a watch and underlines issues faced by the Latino migrant.

1 “Immigration, Puerto Rican/Cuban” Library of Congress.

2 Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. S.l.], 2010.

3 Sondheim, Stephen. © 1956, 1957 Amberson Holdings LLC and Stephen Sondheim. Copyright renewed. Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company LLC, Publisher.

4 Hoodlum, 17, seized as slayer of boy, 15: HOODLUM, 17, HELD IN SLAYING OF BOY. (1955, May 02). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from

The Folk Revival hits St. Olaf with Folk Festivals

During the 1960’s, folk music in the United States was gaining popularity. Folk songs accompanied by banjos and guitars that were a staple in the south earlier started to spread northward and found homes in college dorms across the country. One of these colleges happen to be our very own St. Olaf.

When sifting through old articles of the college newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, many stories appear of the folk music tradition on campus. Below, is a snippet from the Manitou Messenger about the traditional Folk Festival St. Olaf used to hold each spring.

During these festivals, there was a variety of banjo strumming workshops, watching videos of popular folk musicians at the time, performances by the St. Olaf Folk Dance Group and then of course the folk concert, by “some of the best folk artists of the Midwest.”1 As a musical campus, it is not surprising for the college to become a folk scene. In Pete Seeger’s words, “Whatever people are singing-that’s folk music.”2 What were the folks at St. Olaf singing? Aside from Beautiful savior, our folk scene brought “Talking St. Olaf Blues” and one “The ballad of Ytterboe” (about a dog, not the dorm), were written by a college student Paul Ingvolstaud in 1963.2 Unfortunately, in true folk song spirit, I have been unable to locate recordings of these.

In these campus folk festivals, various campus language clubs set up booths and different cultural food was presented. The St. Olaf Folk Dance Group danced different folk styles, from Scottish to Filipino.2 St. Olaf used the annual folk festival to not only embrace their folk tradition, but traditions of other cultures that made up the college’s identity. The revival of folk music and its spreading to colleges reflect its stickiness to the young generation at the time, especially on a campus that is known for their singing.

1 “Folk Festival Returns!” The Manitou Messenger. 5 April 1963. Digital.

2 “Whatever folks are singing….that’s what makes it folk music” The Manitou Messenger. 15 February 1963. Digital.

Copland and his American Influence

Aaron Copland is widely known as “the dean of American music.” His music reflects Americanism and also helped in the World War II war effort. Aside from domestic efforts, his letters reveal his efforts in spreading American music and its influence to other countries and composers.

U.S. composer Aaron Copland in 1969

Based on Copland’s frequent travel, it almost seems like he did not like staying in America for too long. One country Copland’s musical travels brought him to was Mexico. The purpose of his visit was for a showcase of American composers. Prior to this musical festival, Copland writes to fellow musician Elizabeth Coolidge in 1937 speaking on what American music can do for the country.

“Having lived in Mexico before, I think I can understand what a profound influence such a series of concerts is most likely to have on the musical life of the country.” 1

His expectation of the concerts are later documented in his reply to Coolidge.

“On the whole,  from my own standpoint, the most important aspect of the Festival, was the opportunity it gave me for a cross section view of the present status of our own music. I came away feeling strongly encouraged for its future.” 2

Copland seems to view his performance’s success not only as spreading influence to Mexico, but as a validation for American music’s stronghold to itself. Later in regards to broadening his reach to other Latin American countries, Copland writes to Carlos Chavez, a growing Mexican composer.

“Any other bright ideas you may have, along the lines of furthering cultural relations between Latin American countries and the USA, via music, would be very welcome.”3

Copland and Bernstein

Aside from Copland’s American influence to Latin America via music, is to his admirers who ask for his advice on American nationalism in music. A *special friend* Lenard Bernstein known to Copland affectionately as Lenny, asked for advice while a student at Harvard for his senior thesis about nationalism in American music.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a Gilbert used Negro material, there was therefore nothing American about it.  There’s always the chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material.” 4

The fact that Bernstein asks for Copland’s opinions about nationalism in music secures Copland’s place as a stronghold for influence for American identity. Based on this and from his success in spreading American music to other countries show the success of spreading American music and his overwhelming influence on others.

Black Representation in Country Music

Country music is often seen as one of the most segregated, and “whitest” of music genres. In 2014, when hosting the Country Music Awards, country star Brad Paisley said, “If any of you tuned into ABC tonight expecting to see the new show Black-ish, yeah, this ain’t it. In the meantime, I hope you all are enjoying White-ish.”1 While it was intended to be a joke, many viewers took to Twitter addressing their concerns about the intentions and racism behind the joke. However, Paisley’s joke only highlights the truth behind the white dominated field of country music, with only a few black musicians.

Most notable for his success in country music despite his race is Charley Pride. Pride released his first single “Snakes crawl at Night” in January, 1966. The top executives of the label RCA agreed to sign him after listening to his demos before they knew his race. Fearing his success would be hindered from his race, the label producers shielded his race for the release of his first three singles by not putting his face on the album. Compared to Jackie Robinson, he endured any discrimination in silence, determined that his talent would earn his success. It showed because in his career he had 29 #1 Country Hits that no other black country singer has come close to matching.2

Currently on the rise in country music is Darius Rucker. Rucker has been the only black artist to top the Country chart since Charley Pride with his most known single, Wagon Wheel. In an interview, Rucker says he frequently has African-American fans approaching him at concerts or tweeting that don’t feel ashamed to like country music now if their friends give them a hard time. Rucker downplays his legacy as a pioneer saying “music is just music.” “People don’t want me singing country music. But I’ve never wanted to let anybody tell me what I can do.”3

When searching through the Sheet Music Consortium, it is nearly impossible to find songs about black cowboys, much less black country singers. I did however find a song published nearly a decade before Charley Pride was writing his songs. The song “My Dear Old Southern Home” touches on the same themes that country music embodies, such as home, and having a warm southern home away from the “harsh winters” Rucker sings about in the north in the song above. Based on the dialect in this song,4 it is through the lens of a black man returning to his southern home. Today, there is a universal dialect for country singers and it is not separated by race, but by being from the south.

“My Dear Old Southern Home” by Charles H. Yale. 1876.

So, the next time someone cracks a joke about the predominately whiteness that dominates country music, they are not wrong. However, there are black musicians in the genre that have been very successful and also reach a diverse audience. It is the universal messages of country music, like homecoming that transcends time and race.

Williams and Walker: From Minstrelsy and Beyond

American audiences at the turn of the twentieth century loved watching performances that had a sense of authenticity. White Americans viewed blackness as the most authentic form of cultural expression, while the nation was still whirling with the lasting effects of minstrelsy. Black performers and musicians used America’s fascination with the “other,” authenticity, and minstrelsy to their advantage. Among these black performers, are the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker that used their race and talent as a marketing tactic to increase their cultural value, further their careers, and deliver the authenticity Americans craved while paving the way for other black musicians.

When Bert Williams met George Walker in 1893, they were very amused with watching white actors in blackface try to act natural on stage and dub themselves as “coons.” Walker remarks “We thought that as there seems to be a great demand for for black faces on stage, we would do all we could do to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature.” 1 Billing themselves as “the two real coons,” the duo headed to New York surrounding themselves with talented members of their race, such as H.T. Burleigh among other recognizable names. With a show behind their name, Williams and Walker were able to put a premium on cakewalk. In 1903, the duo debuted their show Dahomey, at the New York Theater and the first black, comedy musical on Broadway. Below is a poster for the show’s most famous song.

An advertisement of the song “I’m a Jonah Man” From Dahomey.

The show was widely successful, making a tour in Europe for the future King of England, Edward the VIII. William and Walker did not emphasize the ragtime rhythms and coon song stereotypes that dominated their field, nor the exaggerated, high kneed cakewalk. Instead, they demonstrated how smooth, beautiful, and sensational it could be. Additionally, jokes the pair made were not targeted at race differences as seen by the white minstrels, but by universal situations or characters like a “downtrodden” everyone could laugh at.2 They pitched their “real blackness” at audiences to draw crowds to an authentic “black style.” The duo danced a middle ground between thunderous applause and being thrown off the stage solely for being black by their audiences. Below, is a review by the New York Times after one of their shows.

New York Times, Feb 19, 1903.


Even though both actors were black, Williams wore blackface to make his skin even darker. Perhaps by putting on blackface, he was, in a way controlling minstrelsy and taking ownership of its racial representations. Through their performances, the pair crafted their own claims to racial identity and black culture while also creating quality content that would circulate Tin Pan Alley at a wide audience. Through their efforts, the pair helped audiences recognize negro talent that carved pathways with lasting effects. In 1940 for example, Duke Ellington recorded “A Portrait of Bert Williams” as a tribute. With minstrelsy’s dark beginnings, William and Walker saw an opportunity to change the way audiences thought about race and entertainment that has had lasting effects, making them a couple well deserved to have a blogpost written about.

Whiten’ up

While we have now become more familiar with blackface, white people are not the only ones to change the color of their skin and take on a new persona. Blackface minstrelsy might have been all the rage by gathering popularity and attention in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but behind closed doors, whiteface was growing among slaves through illegal late night cabals. Just as blackface was for white people, whiteface allows black people to assume a new identity comically, one that comes with privilege, power, and what it means to be white.

In a “Saturday Night Live” skit in 1984, Eddie Murphy becomes a “white man.”1
The lightening of his skin, mustache, and change in hair shows the physical changes he undertook to become white. To prepare for his disguise, Murphy is shown watching TV to analyze how white men walk and act, to the audiences amusement. He practiced his “white man” voice that sounded more like a bark and authoritative. It is comedic to watch his experience of privilege, such as getting a newspaper for free from a fellow white man instead of having to pay for it. While applying for a loan at a bank with nothing to his name, he is turned down by a black man, but when the banker is replaced by a white man, stacks of money get shoved into his hands with jolly words of “pay us back-or don’t!” The skit puts a comic spin on the underlying issue of privilege and trustworthiness.

When Murphy was on the bus, as soon as the last black person got off, it became a  party with wine, cheese and jazz music complete with clapping by a white guy who had no sense of rhythm. It depicts that life as a white person is a constant party. It is comparable to the modern day slogan of “white people be like.” In social media, a platform where people try to be the best versions of themselves, girls are lightening their skin, straightening their hair, and becoming blonde; an unmistakable trait for people of European descent. It is problematic that, what some deem as the best version of themselves, is stripping their blackness. Even our Beloved Beyoncé is known to almost always have dyed blonde hair to look more European instead of embracing her natural curls. Video tutorials flood Youtube with “natural whiteface.”2

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Beyoncé with straightened, then curled, blonde hair.

For as long as their has been differences in race, there has been others trying to copy and make fun of the “other”. Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live is a classic example of a race poking fun of the traits that come along with the other race. Fortunately for the actor, is was done in 1984, after the civil rights movement, so the fear of being criticized or physically hurt was lessened than predecessors. Still, it goes to show that just like blackface, with a little makeup, anyone can be anything.

Steel Guitars: from Hawaii to Hank Williams

When I think of country music, in my mind I can hear what sounds like to me the whiny steel guitar to accompany that accompanies it. What I did not know was the “whiny” steel guitar is not only a trademark to country music, but Hawaiian as well. The origin of the steel guitar begins in Hawaii in the early 1893.

The repertoire first performed by the steel guitar performed by the first generation of steel guitarists consisted of mele and was in the Hawaiian language. The songs often reflected the political turmoil taking place during that time in the state in the early 1900’s.1

Joseph Kekuku is credited with inventing the steel guitar, and spent the rest of his life perfecting it. The very origin of how he invented the steel guitar is contested, but according to his great niece he developed the sound by an accident. As she recalls, Kekuku was eleven years old when he was sitting on the front steps of his house. By accident, he leaned over and his metal tooth comb fell out of his pocket and onto the strings of his guitar, making a sound he would spend his life trying to recreate and perfect.2 Trademarks to the Hawaiian guitar are the ornamental sweeps such as: glissandos, dampening the strings to imitate glottal stops, sliding notes with the steel bar and many others were used to imitate ancient Hawaiian music.

Above is audio of how the steel guitar was used in Hawaiian music. While it is not performed by Kekuku, Sol Hoopii is another well known Hawaiian steel guitarist who made his living performing across the country.

The effects that the Hawaiian use of steel guitar in the music draws similar response to the “complaining songs” of country music that yearn for a better life. Bjorn Jonsen from Brooklyn wrote “I have never been to Hawaii but someday I will go. The playing makes one forgets the care’s worries of the day and makes one want to forget the humdrum existence of the city for the sandy white shores of beaches where the sun always shines.”3 Helen Ward from Ohio agrees saying “It is my favorite music. Especially when I am tired, nervous, overtaxed from worry. It is so resting, so comforting when I am all alone and blue.”4 No doubt, the expressiveness of the steel guitar is modeled in the listeners.

The steel guitar was brought to the United States by traveling troupes in the 1910’s. America’s reception to the steel guitar like other foreign musical cultures and instruments was exotic but not threatening. While the very start of the instrument’s implementation in country music and American culture is heavily debated, the pioneer of country music, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the first know musicians to use the instrument. The exotic sound of the guitar and the “whine” it made was a perfect backdrop for the complaining songs of country music. Below is an example of the steel guitar used in country music, in a song by Hank Williams.

In both videos the steel guitar is used as an accompaniment and “whine” and slide of the guitar is evident.

America’s reception to the foreign steel guitar was exotic like other foreign music but not dangerous. The dreaminess as told by reviews gave listeners a sense of comfort. The steel guitar unites the “whiteness” of country music and the “whine” in their music with the sounds of another culture that experiences the very same feelings linking together people of very different backgrounds and filling them with comfort and hope.

1 TROUTMAN, JOHN W. “NOTES.” In Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music, 235-320. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. pg 62.

2 STEEL GUITAR PLAYING INVENTED BY HAWAIIAN. 1927. New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 23, 1927. (accessed September 23, 2019).

3 Bjorn Johnsen to the Oahu Serenaders, February 7, 1933, folder 2, box 83,

4 Helen B. Ward to the Oahu Serenaders, January 22, 1934, folder 7, box 83,

The role of the Medicine Man in Native American Music

A Native American Medicine Man standing beside a sick woman, c. 1870. Photographed by O.C. Smith (American, active 1860s – 1870s).

In almost every Native American tribe, there is a medicine man or healer, as seen in the picture above. These men, and occasionally women, had to go “beyond human power” to use their herbs and chants to heal ailing tribesmen. A medicine man gained his power to heal through dreams, visions, and even during the song, as discovered in class while looking through many primary sources. During visions and encounters with the Great Spirit, healers were told how to heal ailments and advised on which herbs, roots and plants to use, and which to avoid. To aide their power, healers often lived in quiet seclusion to be in tune with nature its power sometimes giving them the name “forest folk”.

A traditional medicine mask used to scare off evil spirits and disease in tribe members.

Ely S. Parker, born in 1828, was from the Iroquois tribe and in newspapers, recounts the practices of the medicine man through public and private ceremonies. Native American medicine men treated the sick and ailing in public ceremonies followed by a private meeting. The public ceremony was attended by tribesman of high power and influence and took place over several days. During those public and private healing sessions, the medicine man may have told narratives, chanted, and sing. A “sacred song” is chanted only by one medicine man. If anyone else chants the “sacred song,” it is expected that evil events will follow.2   To further aide him, he may have used tobacco pouches and the herb of choice sent to him by the Great Spirit. There are times when the the medicine man is not able to heal the sick, but this is viewed as the will of the “Great Spirit” who is asked to “guide the red man and choose for his best, always.”

Most songs were accompanied by a regular drumbeat, dubbed as the heartbeat of the Earth, to help calm and relax the sick. Additionally, the drumbeat expanded the mind of the medicine man to the awareness of self and spirit. Other instruments like the rattle, shook away disease, and bells borrowed from Christianity invoked God’s healing power.3  It is told that “he who holds the medicine has time to die.” That is, they can choose their successor because their death is never sudden and “has time to die.” This background of the medicine men’s rituals which were alien and exotic to foreigners such as John Smith helps shed a light on what outside visitors encountered.

1 Hofmann, Charles. American Indians Sing New York: John Day Co., 1967. 46

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2 Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 11, 1828-1894, © The Newberry Library, 96